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Evelyn Marsters: Being wary of Ebola hype

Last week I was onboard an Air New Zealand flight to Sydney. Aside from the usually tedious safety announcements, I heard something unexpected: “If you suspect you have an infectious disease (better not say the ‘E’ word), or are experiencing a fever and flu-like symptoms, please report to airport staff on arrival to Sydney.”

Ebola was the new feature of in-flight announcements.

I started thinking, what would I do if the person next to me, or either one of my children, were displaying the typical signs of an everyday cold? If I’m honest, I have to say that unless the person was obviously West African and bleeding into my lap I would do nothing. The chances of being infected by Ebola aboard a plane travelling over the Pacific Ocean are pretty much zero.

Although the Ebola virus has ‘slipped through’ two Western borders, making very small – but dramatic – appearances in the US and Spain, it’s still a West African saga. We can watch it play out from a distance, panic a little when we see the yellow protective suits, and do nothing. It’s not going to come into our neighbourhoods.

I don’t want to downplay Ebola. On the contrary, I have been wanting to write a follow-up to my previous article, addressing the power structures that are shaping the consequences of the epidemic. The problem is, with such a complex issue, I don’t know where to start.

The Ebola epidemic has killed 4,951 people, partly because making vaccines and treatments for poor people isn’t high on the agenda of profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. People are being barricaded inside their slums, with no food and no access to employment, which is completely unwarranted given that there is no scientific proof that mass quarantine is effective in zoonotic (spreads between different species) diseases like Ebola. Mandatory quarantine for Ebola workers is going to affect who volunteers to help, and how long international health workers stay. And what about the fact Ebola is triggering a food crisis and long term food insecurity in these nations?

Megan’s essay takes a further look at this last point. Beyond the trauma of Ebola itself, the efficiency of the disease in reinforcing poverty and inequality is perhaps the slow-burning real horror of the whole damn thing.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland, and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.